FrightFest 2018 review roundup

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Frightfest, the UK's premier horror film festival, is done for another year, and the Smoke Screen has stumbled out of the auditorium, wiped off the blood and brain matter, and got down to work writing up some of this year's highlights

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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Rock Steady Row

Director: Trevor Stevens

USA 2018. 77 mins.

RATING: ★★★★☆

I am always likely to respond well to the promise of a genre mashup that manages to somehow gel A Fistful of Dollars, Mad Max, West Side Story, and the aesthetic of comic books into one commentary on Trumpian times. That is what Rock Steady Row, from debut director Trevor Stevens, delivers over 70 highly-stylised, synth-inflected minutes. This cheeky dystopian delight is set in a future world where America has collapsed in all sorts of ways, one of those ways being that tuition has now become so unaffordable that student communities now resemble a wild frontier town in a post apocalyptic nightmare land, where lack of resources means that cruel fraternities have formed to control what little is left. The action takes place in one such hellhole - the war zone-like campus of Rock Steady Row - where two warring fraternities have taken over the ruined campus dorm house row, and bicycles dominate the campus economy. No one can afford a car, and public transport is a long-forgotten dream, hence freshmen and the generally unlucky will grovel to get their Schwinn out of protective custody. The established order gets upset when one newcomer, a man-of-few-words freshman called Leroy, decides to play both rival fraternities against each other, Man With No Name style, when his BMX gets stolen. Leroy handily has a sweet line of martial arts superpowers, which get enhanced when he has 80’s power chords and synth beats blazing from his walkman. Lead Heston Horwin makes for an appealing main man, managing to pull off the requisite balance of emitting wiry toughness whilst winking at the audience, and has buzzy chemistry with co-star Diamond White (playing student journalist Piper, doing her best Lois Lane in the face of the world’s end). Logan Huffman as fraternity godfather and main villain Palmer channels Heath Ledger’s Joker (Palmer uses pencils as weapons for one thing, pencils being another item in short supply) like his life depended on it. Some wacky fights and appealingly bizarre visions of how a post apocalyptic student community would function keep Rock Steady Row a short, sweet treat.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: The Dark

Director: Justin P. Lange

Austria 2018. 94 mins

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Dying as a result of a sexual assault and murder by her mother’s abusive boyfriend turns out not to be the end of for lonely American teen Mina (Nadia Alexander), as she is reborn mysteriously as an undead flesh-eating ghoul, cursed to haunt her childhood woodland home out in the rural midwest. After crawling out of her grave to wreck vengeance on her family, her hunting territory develops a local legend over the years after as ‘The Devil’s Den’, and her old house falls into a state of eerie disrepair. After presumably a decade of hunting human prey with her mother’s old axe and her ghoulish nails, Nina comes across Alex, an abused blind boy left in the car trunk of the very abuser who we witness ending up as Mina’s recent meal in the film’s opening ten minutes. After killing his obnoxious companion, Mina for some reason lets Alex live, an action that eventually allows her human side to re-emerge as he two bond, though not without the film eventually settling into a path already well-trodden by the likes of Let the Right One In. Exactly how the mythology behind Mina’s supernatural transformation isn’t made entirely clear, and the narrative drags out revealing Alex’s background without offering up a payoff that satisfied me. Still, young star Nadia Alexander leaves a lasting impression under all that putrefying makeup, as does the lensing of atmospheric rural locations.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Climax

Director: Gaspar Noé.

France 2018. 95 mins.

RATING: ★★★☆☆

A case of spiked sangria makes things get very, very crazy for a Paris-based dance troupe locked away in their studio, in wild child director Gaspar Noé’s throbbing, hypnotic, but sometimes frustrating style exercise.  Set in just one location, a young dance troupe led by Sofia Boutella’s lithe Selva are seen rehearsing for an upcoming American tour in a dingy school assembly hall before being allowed to ease into the snack trolley and punch bowl off to one side, but even before the wacky wine starts causing things to go VERY off kilter, Noé is giving us quite the technical showpiece; with extended takes allowing the agile cast to bust out some mesmerising choreographed dance routines. A pulsating, near-deafening score of the finest EDM beats combined with gliding steadicam shots that seem to ignore no possible angle of view creates quite the bewitching effect on the viewer, although I found most of the dialogue sequences in between the moments of dance sublimity kind of interminable: consisting mostly of men talking shit about women and women complaining about said shit talk. Perhaps the inanity is the point: maybe people should just shut up and dance if they’ve got nothing to say.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Anna and the Apocalypse

Director: John McPhail

UK 2017 107 Mins

RATING: ★★★★☆

It was only just a matter of time before someone mashed up Glee with a zombie movie. In fact, given my limited knowledge of horror movies, it is entirely possible I’ve been unaware of this having already been done, so I won’t say that the sassy, loopy zombie musical Anna and the Apocalypse, from director John McPhail, is the first of its kind. But it certainly gets the essentials right: actually have characters who are charming, funny, and whose journey you can invest in, and have the songs be both foot-tappingly decent whilst serving the plot. Star Ella Hunt is a smart, sympathetic and relatable lead as high-schooler Anna, looking forward to the end of high school so she can start jet-setting around the world to experience life before settling down. Problem: a zombie apocalypse has just engulfed her sleepy Scottish town, forcing Anna and her amusingly mismatched group of friends (plus the school jock who teams up with them) to baseball bat their way to freedom. In between the song and dance numbers set in the mundanity of a ‘bog-standard comprehensive’, the screenplay and performances muster up some surprisingly poignant moments, and I was kept on my tones by the cheesier beats always being counterbalanced with some genuinely funny scenes (many involving today’s teens being super nonchalant about a zombie apocalypse; they’ve all seen the movies and its somewhere in the middle of their priority list) followed up by some pretty merciless outcomes for the teenybopper lineup.


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Film Review -  FrightFest 2018: Crystal Eyes

Director: Ezequiel Endelman, Leandro Montejano

Argentina 2017 83mins

RATING: ★★★☆☆

This neo-Giallo may not be particularly surprising in how it plays out, but it sure looks and sounds the part (think lots of stained glass windows in chintzy corridors with shafts of purple light shining through, and ketchup blood oozing everywhere). The setting is the world of high-class modelling in Buenos Aires, 1985, and it is the first anniversary of the death of Alexis Carpenter, the unstable supermodel who died tragically in a horrendous catwalk fire. Fashion editor Lucia L'uccello wants to honour Alexis in a commemorative issue of her magazine. But the night before the cover photo shoot, Alexis' original dresses are stolen and staff members begin to disappear at the hands of a sinister silhouette in a long black leather raincoat. Is someone seeking revenge? Well...obviously!

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Joan Crawford has her claws out in THE WOMEN, a highlight of the BFI's Joan Crawford season

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The BFI's Joan Crawford season, celebrating the legendary star, is running at BFI Southbank this September.

As a fully paid-up member of the Joan Crawford fan club (Jonny Guitar remains a favourite western of mine, in large part due to her performance) it was my pleasure to see the George Cukor-directed 1938 satirical comedy THE WOMEN tonight. Stuffed to bursting with a football pitch-worth of female hollywood stars - Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russel and Joan Fontaine are just a few, in a film with top names seemingly happy to turn up in minor roles - Crawford purrs her way to the top even in a supporting turn, and it feels appropriate therefore that the BFI showcase this film as the highlight of their season celebrating the legendary actress. Crawford, as a shamelessly man-pilfering social climber called Crystal, gets some of the sharpest, slinkiest lines in the film, most of them shot full-force towards her rival in love: the more straight-arrow middle-class housewife, Mary (Shearer). Crystal is soon the talk of the town for going after Mary's husband, and she doesn't care who knows it. She seems, for most of the film, to be winning the fight too.

Anita Loos’ and Jane Murfin’s screenplay frames the Crystal-Mary feud against a rich backdrop of gossip, sisterly solidarity, money worries and much ranting about the caddishness of men that fills up the diaries of the disparate group of Manhattan women that circle around Mary's life. Intriguingly, not a single man appears on screen during the entire running time, making this film seem like a revolutionary act even if men, and marriage, makes up a good chunk of the female conversation. The more obvious satirical jabs at high society's peccadilloes and penchants, such as the opening sequence featuring a bravura tracking shot through the gossip-drenched rooms of a salon where only a good scandal tip-off is allowed to interrupt a good facial, makes it hard to judge how seriously the film wants us to take certain main characters when they express what we might call a more 'conservative' approach to sexual politics. Should we be laughing, or taking this as the film's 'message'? Treating your husband's infidelity as something partly your fault, for not kicking his lover's ass hard enough to impress him, is not a sentiment likely to impress modern audiences. But the huge number of women in the cast, and even the maids and cooks get a few minutes on screen to shoot the shit, mean we get a wide range of alternative views expressed on the intersection of marriage and masculinity and how women should deal with men's bullshit, with lashings of whip-crack smart humour in the mix to balance out the heaviness. Crackingly good stuff.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

A VERY happy birthday to Heathers, back in cinemas for the 30th anniversary

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Director: Michael Lehmann

18 | 1h 43min | Comedy | 17 November 1989 (UK) (1988 US)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Playing various cinemas across London including The Prince Charles Cinema and Picturehouses

The darkly funny and subversive 1988 high-school comedy Heathers, now 30 years old and due a re-release, seems like one of the outliers in the high school movie genre given just how dark and provocative it gets, even by what feels like "today's standards". It feels like a full-throttle "fuck you" to all the John Hughes movies that arguably set the parameters of this kind of film just a few years earlier. Maybe a Heathers was kind of inevitable in that way, its common to see certain films kick against a trend a few years after said trend has bedded in. And so in Heathers, a story about a series of high school murders carried out in the name of rebellion against the school's suffocating clique-conformist culture, neither of the main leads here stay on the side of the angels. Despite a last-act turn against the descent into nihilistic mass-murder, Winona Ryder's jaded, upper-crust ex-clique rebel Veronica is still a co-conspirator to the deaths, acting in cahoots with he lover, the school's dark horse nihilist JD. The cast of supporting players who pivot around the main duo all at some point seem to the target of the film's mockery too. Whether it is new age proponents of touchy-feely teaching, bullying jocks, or leering anti-social geeks; the entire bland Ohio high school which serves as the film's setting is seemingly empty of anyone that we the viewers can latch on to, though this gives us plenty to chuckle and roll our eyes at. Director Michael Lehmann's and writer Daniel Waters' approach feels more John Waters than John Hughes in this regard. I can't deny I like films that go after everyone, without punching down.

One the film's most deliciously funny conceits is the fact that killing various members of the despicably privileged and brainless ruling cliques - which Veronica and JD proceed to set about doing in a variety of crude DIY methods ranging from poison to pistols- is ironically the only way these kids end up attaining a bizarre kind of grace by the time they are laid in the coffin; not exactly what their murderers intended. This school is so fucked up, even murder can't be done right: instead of waking people up in the way rich kid revolutionary JD raves about, each brutal death simply sends everyone in the school further into a spiral of schmaltzy memorialisation of the ruling clique pupils who everyone either secretly hated or feared when they were alive. JD draws his own nihilistic conclusions from this: might as well just blow everyone up in one go and create a "Woodstock for the 80s" via a few bricks of TNT.

If there is anyone worth rooting for, anyone the script seems to have a sliver of sympathy for, it seems to be only those at the very bottom of the pile, such as the socially isolated and overweight high-schooler "Martha Dumptruck" who is everyone's punching bag. As acidic as the film's screenplay is, and as flippant as it comes off about issues like teen suicide, rape and murder (with high school shootings now seemingly the norm in the US, elements of this film's plot does induce some queasiness), the presence of characters like Martha seems like the clearest evidence that the film isn't really on the side of Slater's "kill em all and let God sort 'em out" faux-rebel theatrics; which are made even more hypocritical by the fact he himself is the scion of huge wealth which he doesn't seem very interested in rejecting. It is instead more a satire-laced cry for a return to basic empathy; something which Reagan's 80s relegated to the bottom of the priority list. Still, I find myself wondering how much flak this film has taken in the post-Columbine shooting era, with JD's trench coat getup, 44 Magnum, and arsenal of cynical one-liners something of a high-school killer lookbook.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Maurice, from the director of Call Me By Your Name, returns in a sumptuous 4K reissue

Director: James Ivory

15 | 2h 20min | Drama, Romance | 18 September 1987 (USA)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Merchant Ivory’s award-winning adaptation of E.M. Forster’s autobiographical novel, will open at BFI Southbank and selected cinemas UK-wide from 27 July 2018.

This handsome-looking Merchant Ivory British drama is getting a 4K digital re-release this August courtesy of the BFI, and its a timely reissue given the recent success of the James Ivory-scripted gay drama Call Me By Your Name. Maurice, also a gay-cented movie, bears many similarities to last year's indie hit, but whereas Call Me was about the sweet pain of letting it all out, Maurice is about the pain of keeping it tightly wound in.

Adapted from the E.M Forster novel by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James Ivory himself, Maurice is set in an early 20th century Edwardian Britain still reeling from the Oscar Wilde trial. We start off in the refined atmosphere of Cambridge University, populated exclusively by upper crust males, where the repressed, unworldly bourgeois Maurice Hall (James Wilby, in a performance that opens out superbly over time), ends up surprised by his own passions for the sophisticated but cautious fellow student Clive Clive Durham (Hugh Grant: clipped and dashing, but always suggesting the pain of fighting a losing battle against conformity). Both men end up caught up in the push and pull between their own desires, fears, and each other's different judgements of the two, a battle which can never really be either resolved or fought out in the open, this being an era not only when homosexuality was illegal but when social expectations of the upper class were as suffocating as any law. The tension of discovery is never far away, especially when one of their less cautious and effete classmates is exposed by a cruel police sting and given much the same treatment Wilde was. The scene where Grant's character essentially jettisons their friendship over the telephone to keep his freedom (and privilege) is a painful reminder of what fear did to gay men. Still, wealth and status give Maurice and Clive a layer of protection (there are clues Maurice's sarcastic butler knows the score) not afforded to the poorer class, which just showcases the hypocrisy of English homophobia even more.

Yet Ivory's lavishly decorated film is interesting too in how it explores the tragic irony of this situation: Maurice and Clive, and all their fellow students, are literally drowning in privilege. They are also being educated in what you might call an almost ludicrously male environment; where ceremonies, language and lessons all reinforce the superiority of the English male. They even are schooled in very saucy Greek homosexual literature in their philosophy and literature seminars; explicit texts which, hilariously, cause one lecturer to blushingly keep requesting that they 'skip over the vice of the Greeks' at key points in recitals. Yet for all this privilege, all this maleness, these two men can't express their love; they are suffocating. Ultimately though, thanks to Maurice's growing resentment at what the strictures of society mean for his future (which puts him on an interesting reverse path to Clive), and an encounter with a gay groundkeeper in his later years, a positive and enriching portrait of a loving relationship does eventually emerge. Worth seeing, especially if you enjoyed Call Me By Your Name.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

A rarely-seen but super-chilling war film returns: It Happened Here

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Director: Kevin Brownlow

PG | 1h 33min | Drama, Fantasy, War | 12 May 1966 (UK)

Screening at the BFI 23 July and out now on remastered bluray

This week the Smoke Screen caught a special BFI re-release of the chilling and provocative counterfactual WWII Brit thriller It Happened Here, the work of director Kevin Brownlow (Brownlow was only 18 when he and Andrew Mollo – just 16 - embarked on this ambitious drama, which took eight years to complete). This dark 'what if' movie is a B&W social realist-esque look at what might have taken place if the Nazis had successfully invaded Britain in 1940. July 2018 marks the famous programmer, historian and writer Brownlow’s 80th birthday, and the BFI has remastered the film to mark the date. Following the screening at the BFI on Southbank (where Brownlow opined on the crazy shoot, which involved awkward encounters with real fascists, and last-minute help getting film stock from a certain Stanley Kubrick), it will be in stores in a new remastered BFI bluray format.

It Happened Here subverts expectations from the off by nothing down the route of a triumphant story of resistance, but instead drops us into the perspective of a 'collaborator'; a former nurse, who justifies joining the British Nazi nursing corps (called inoffensively the IAO "International Action Organisation) by arguing that saving lives during the partisan vs Nazi conflict is the best use of her time. But Nazism is like a disease; it leaks into everything. A nurse might wear a surgical mask and deliver penicillin, but you can't keep fascism out that way. Every where she turns, the regime consumes everything: locking up her friends (who themselves look on her Nazi nurse uniform in terror), forcing her to administer poison to TB patients, and refusing her desire to be a 'non political' nurse who can just tend to patients without being force fed the ideology.

It was struck by how the film's low budget helped create an eerie atmosphere. The Nazi occupation, following their successful invasion of 1940 (presumably after winning the Battle of Britain, though in reality a naval invasion would have to face the vastly superiorRoyal Navy) subsists sort of below surface of picturesque olde England. There simply wasnt the budget to design huge prison camps or giant Nazi monuments that overshadow contemporary London, but its arguably more disconcerting to see London look so...normal, with Brits still in high positions in the dull everyday bureaucracy. The indignity of occupation is you are made to police it yourself and pretend normality. Where the film gets really provocative is the open suggestion that occupation would turn the oppressed into oppressors: partisan groups fighting the Nazis for years are shown to have no hesitation killing surrendering SS troops- who are British volunteers themselves.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Grey Gardens and a film school education at the Lexi Cinema

The Smoke Screen is often out and about soaking up film knowledge through Q&As and pre-film lectures, so the Lexi's Cinema's 'Film School' series of screenings preceded by prominent film speakers is right up the proverbial alley. Last week The Lexi's LSF screening was a milestone in the documentary genre: Grey Gardens. Directed by the quartet of Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and the Maysles brothers (AKA Albert and David), the 1975 doc explores the unbelievable but true story of Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and what years of retreating into a life of secluded eccentricity behind the walls of their decaying 28-room east Hampton's mansion has done to them.  Mother and daughter live in a world of their own behind towering privets that have basically isolated "Grey Garden," from the world; a place so far gone that the local authorities once threatened to evict them for violating building and sanitation codes. 

The incident made national headlines given Beales were from the American upper crust. Mrs. Beale, a.k.a. "Big Edie," was a born aristocrat, sister of "Black Jack" Bouvier, Jackie O's father. "Little Edie" was an aspiring actress who put her New York life on hold to care for her mother - and seems to have never left her side again.  The filmmakers took their camera into the Grey Gardens mansion, and as unobtrusively as possible, sat and watched this strange, co-dependent relationship veer all over the place, from little Edie dropping bags of bread into the attic to feed the masses of racoons that had settled in, the Big Edie and Little Edie having endlessly shrill and circular rows about who ruined who's life. The film has gone on to be a touchstone for discussing what documentary is, the ethics of filmmaking, and the extent to which the director, editor, and even the subjects are the "filmmakers".

Those were just some of the issues speaker Sophie Brown (critic and programmer and producer of DocTooth) was interested in raising before the screening. #LexiFilmSchool takes place on Monday evenings.  Tickets are £8 (£6 to Lexi members), with a reduced price of £20 when all 4 titles are booked at the same time. It is worth pointing out that, in addition to the speaker and the film, ticket buyers get additional information emailed to them before the evening: short film notes, links to further reading, and a few suggested 'if you like this, then...' titles. 

See the Lexi Website for more information. It really will be worth your time. Sophie Brown tweets as @SBrown400.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jane Campion's Oscar-winning The Piano at the BFI's Woman With a Movie Camera summit

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The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have sparked an industry wide conversation and actions in response to widespread harassment and abuse of power. Not a bad time for the BFI to be hosting a summit titled “Woman with a Movie Camera” then. The Smoke Screen dipped into one of the panel discussions - “Before and After Time’s Up” - running at BFI Southbank throughout the day, which saw panel members Holly Tarquini (Film Bath CEO), Kate Muir (former critic and now screenwriter), Mia Bays (film producer), and Ellen Jones (campaigner and content creator) discuss the questions “why now?”, and ‘what’s next?”.

In terms of the current landscape, the panel were worried that what has been widely seen as a social media-driven campaign remained limited just to that. Change is messy, and until the big film studios fully got on board, all doubted enough progress would be made. There was more confidence in public sector bodies like unions embracing the message, however. As for the question as to why it has been 2017-8 that has seen the perception of a tipping point being reached in terms of representation awareness, all agreed social media played a key role, as well as a global swell of desire to fight against what President Trump represented. Modern media allowed more rapid and widespread communication and mobilisation today, and being heard galvanised others to speak out. Men like Harvey Weinstein were also more vulnerable in this decade, as their power had waned in recent years even as the had created long lists people waiting for their chance to speak out against them - who were now taking it. Powerful men no longer had the means to control the message, they could be bypassed. “To be heard is so galvanising,” and “to know you are not alone” were comments that had all heads nodding.

What happens next will depend on continuing collaboration, agitating in the large studio spaces, education, and mentoring. Mentoring by older and more experienced women is something in particular that Ellen Jones, the youngest of the panel, wanted to see become the norm, given how opaque and hostile the media industry can seem. Change really needs to occur in the stories on screen for the fullest effect. As Holly Tarquini put it: “truths are what we see on screen,” and she “grew up a misogynist” due to seeing only negative stereotypes of women on film.

The centrepiece screening of the day was a 25th anniversary reissue of writer-director Jame Campion’s drama The Piano, the 1993 film that scooped the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won three Academy Awards out of eight total nominations in March 1994: Best Actress for Holly Hunter, Best Supporting Actress for Anna Paquin, and Best Original Screenplay for Campion. The Smoke Screen had never seen the film before, but found it a beguiling, sensuous and mysterious experience, with Holly Hunter an intense and luminous presence as the mourning-clad, voiceless Scottish widowed pianist Ada, sold by her father into marriage to a New Zealand frontiersman named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill, as good as ever as a man toxically unable to fulfil his patriarchal fantasies), bringing her young daughter Flora (a great turn from Paquin, who was just 11-year old) with her.

Ada's twisted sexual relationship with the illiterate New Zealand sailor Baines (a suitably brusque and hulking Harvey Keitel) and her coldness and lack of availability towards the baffled and emasculated Stewart contrasts with her passionate piano playing and her tender, sign language-based relationship with her daughter. Ada is a complex, difficult to pin down figure, who is surprisingly brusque and even violent in her communications, her mute status regardless. Some spectacular cinematography and framing - Ada playing her abandoned piano on a windswept New Zealand beach as the tide roils in the background - give us a sense of this lush, yet faraway and lonely land Ada has ended up in. The titular piano itself becomes an object intriguingly open to interpretation, beyond the obvious that it serves as Ada’s ‘voice’. It is it a fetish object? A representation of some suppressed passion that might stir in her thanks to Baines? By the end Ada worries it has become something darker, like a black hole pulling her in.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Poles apart: an advance review of Pawel Pawlikowski's Cannes winner COLD WAR

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Courtesy of a preview screening at Curzon Mayfair, attended by the Ida and My Summer of Love director himself, the Smoke Screen can bring you an advance look at Pawel Pawlikowski's new drama Cold War, hot from a Best Director prize win at Cannes. The film hits UK cinemas and digital VOD 31 August.


Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

1h 24min | Drama, Romance | 31 August 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

The picture looks perfect but the love is strained, in Paweł Pawlikowski’s exquisitely shot, carefully paced, and exceedingly wistful Cold War-set drama. It is the follow-up to his Oscar-winning film Ida, and like that movie, it is set in an oppressed and oppressive Poland (though in later acts, we move to various other European countries either in or free from the Soviet Union) during the height of the iron curtain divide across Europe, and is shot in gorgeous monochrome, with a slow pace and lengthy shots that encourage contemplation. Personally, I fell for Cold War’s visual approach right away, appreciated the fine cast, whilst still wishing there was a little more fire in the love affair that the entire thing hinges on. Bleak and occasionally violent though this film is (even as it is beautiful to look at), one thing that should stay with you though, is the power of the music.

The main duo who’s love affair we are to trace through its up and downs across the Iron Curtain, an undeniably sexy and charismatic pair. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a darkly handsome pianist and composer with intense eyes and a rakish, tall build. He gives off an urbane vibe. Scrappy blonde  singer teenager Zula (Joanna Kulig) claims in contrast to be from the country and acts proud of it, whilst looking a bit like a younger Lea Seydoux. Their intense but elliptical affair begins in a wintry and ruined Soviet Poland in the late 1940s, an atmosphere conveyed with immense effectiveness by that aforementioned irresistible monochrome palette. We first meet Wiktor and a fellow broadcaster are they are deep into touring various remote villages with beat-up looking recording equipment, gathering recordings of folk songs whilst hoping to recruit a troupe of young people for a show of authentic traditional Polish song and dance. These youngsters will be billeted in a country house for a month, drilled to within an inch of their lives for various starring roles, and then sent off on tour. 

As glorious as this sounds in practice, and as thrilling as it is to see all the a cappella performances by the roster of very talented vocalists the pair pluck from the countryside, the political shadow cast by the rulers of the Polish state is never absent. We learn that the performing amateurs that make the grade will not be allowed the freedom to display their musical talents uninhabited; they are fated to be shown off at theatrical evenings to party officials and politically congenial foreigners. Wiktor is clearly disillusioned by this co-opting of art, which manifests in its most chillingly absurd way when the glass-eyed finalists have to sing an ode to Stalin in a concert hall while an insanely gigantic banner of the dictator unfurls behind them. What keeps him pleasantly distracted is the fact that Zula was one of his chosen finalists, and their affair began almost immediately, despite her total understanding that she was probably chosen for her looks, not her talent. She’s not even from the country and thus suitably ‘rustic’; as their racist and suitably oleaginous political commissar,  Kaczmarek (Borys Szyquickly) spots. Zula has a reputation for wildness, which attracts Wiktor (at first). She once attacked her own father with a knife (to stop him mistaking her for his wife, she explains).

As performing musicians forced to play along the Soviet propaganda machine’s lines, Wiktor and Zula daydream about escaping to the creative freedom of the West. A chance comes to make a break for it when the music troupe are sent Paris to show off the superiority and cultural sensitivity of the USSR. But both make a split decision that puts them on opposite sides of the fence: Zula being unwilling to trust that simply flinging it all away for a man she has only known for months is going to be emotionally and physically sustainable. This is where some viewers may choose to depart from Cold War, as, instead of spinning us an affirming tale about love conquering the divide, Pawlikowksi’s film is more keen to quietly emphasise the continuing divide, as these two damaged people never quite find their time and space to blossom, even as the years march on and various stages of political detente and tension change the environments around them (the progression of musical styles and ease of travel helps chart this). Years separate each meeting in various locales spanning Europe, from France to Germany and on to Yugoslavia and elsewhere, Wiktor travelling on a new French passport whilst Zula progresses from travelling under Soviet observation to marrying her way into an Italian passport. Both chance and planned meetings between them don’t begin with tears and melodramatic embraces ; these are two people who have experienced years of separation and have grown used to being apart from each other, even if they still find each other immensely attractive. And as much as they clearly would love to be together, something just seems broken between them.

Cold War can frustrate by not allowing the kind of emotional accessibility that other film’s might as this arc slowly progresses, but you can parse out some sense of the sources of friction during of their global travels: Zula for one thing doesn’t care for the bourgeoisie lifestyle, and is less comfortable being away from Poland than her lover.  Wiktor, for one thing, can’t return to Poland to see Zula unless he is prepared to either face years item gulag or betray other emigres. It is as if being wrenched from their home, no matter how oppressive it was, has made the ground too unstable for them to just love and live. At least the film doesn’t shove a load of self-pity in your face, and dark humour is never absent.

But even if Cold War might frustrate some with its emotional distance, darkness, and seeming disinterest in going deep into the motivations of its lovers or anyone else, it sure as hell works as a bleakly beautiful tone poem to this era of divide and exile. Even if Wikto and Zula can’t get into the same rhythm, one thing that does stitch their journey together for us as viewers is the film’s sensational soundtrack and striking locations, most of which we experience via some superbly-choreographed live performances ranging from the rustic folk songs of rural Poland performed in concert halls to sultry jazz bands belting out the greats in smoky Paris basement bars. And all of it shot in the ‘slow’ style that has lovers of transcendental filmmaking such as Paul Schrader so enamoured of Pawlikowksi. Thus, although it is not a perfect film, Cold War’s brisk 82 minutes offers more than enough for your eyes and ears.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Rediscover one of the greatest silent films this June with the re-release of Pandora’s Box

pandora-s-box-01.jpg

Director: G.W.Pabst

Germany 1929| 129m| U

RATING: ★★★★★

Find out more about the reissue at the BFI website.

Here we have a sumptuously shot and deliriously melodramatic Weimar-era silent film from G.W. Pabst, that is a superb showcase for the luminous 22-year old star Louise Brooks, who plays a call girl and chanteuse called Lulu in late 19th century Berlin who maintains a unashamed taste for champagne, parties and sex. This film, now regarded as one of the greatest silents, can be seen in a restored edition across the UK now via the British Film Institute. It plays as part of Big Screen Classics: It Girls which runs throughout June.

The film is surprisingly frank about Lulu's predilections; she seems to be carrying on at least two affairs at the start of the film with men of very different ages and social status, and seems adept at keeping a court of admirers hanging on her every whim. But the fear of a scandal causes the famous newspaper owner she eventually marries to dementedly try to force Lulu to kill herself (didn't I tell you this film was melodramatic?), and his accidental death in the struggle leads her to flee with the magnate's son across the world using, intriguingly, the passport of a German countess who also seems infatuated with her (one of the first onscreen appearances of a lesbian character). A somewhat bizarre riches-to-rags tale develops in the later acts, taking in the unlikely figure of Jack the Ripper at one point, but Louise Brooks' incredible on screen magnetism and style and some striking cinematography (check those moody, fog-shrouded London streets) make for a irresistible watch...even if the final moral of the screenplay seems to be a warning that this kind of free-spirited behaviour gets you punished in the end.

There is no original negative or print of Pandora’s Box in existence. In the years since its release, prints were often cut or edited for censorship reasons. Three different duplicate prints were the basis for this digital restoration, which was sponsored by the late Hugh Hefner. Previously only shown on the big screen in the UK on 35mm, with cinemas having to hire a pianist or musicians to perform a live score, this new digital version features an orchestral score by the German composer Peer Raben, known for his work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

All the reviews from Sundance London Film Festival 2018

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Exhibition Review: Tacita Dean: Portrait; Still Life review (National Portrait Gallery; National Gallery, London to 28 May)

 Prisoner Pair Tacita Dean 2008Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

Prisoner Pair
Tacita Dean
2008Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

National Portait Gallery and National Gallery to 28 May.

National Portrait Gallery details

National Gallery details

RATING:  ★★★★★

Thanks to a collaboration between the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Academy, each of these esteem institutions over the next few months will host exhibitions from renowned British European artist Tacita Dean, with the National and NPG first up with STILL LIFE and PORTRAIT respectively. This weekend of 25-27 May is therefore really your last chance to catch the first two of the three planned linked exhibitions (the RA's started 19 May and runs to 12 August). Film lovers should make a beeline for this, as 16mm projections lie at the core of the National and NPG's exhibitions, with Dean having long been interested in exploring genres like still life and portraiture but through the medium of film instead of paint. The whirr of 16mm dominates both exhibitions, with Dean seemingly having designed many of the film installation rooms with the intention of making contact with the beam of light unavoidable, a reminder of film's mechanics and physical presence. Some of the film's are projected onto screens that hang from wires so tiny that in the darkened rooms they seem to be floating portals that you might reach through back into the time and place of the on-screen action.

In the quiet of the National Gallery and the NPGs exhibition halls, and in particular when sitting in the rooms devoted to Dean's film still life and portraits (though each exhibition compares and contrasts the film works with photographs and paintings curated by Dean from her own collections or various other galleries and sources), a ruminative and elegiac atmosphere prevails. Aside from being challenged to parse a personality from the various tics and mannerisms of Dean's chosen subjects for the portraits (which includes actors David Warner, Ben Whishaw and Stephen Dillane, and artists David Hockney and Cy Twombley) and having the chance fall under the hypnotic spell of watching a largely still figure hold the screen as a projector whirrs rhymtically behind you, what Dean's portraits encourage is a contemplation of time. Not just the amount of time each film runs for, but also 'film time' (how much time is passing in each portrait, some seem to cover seasons, others a day in the life of an artist with activities both mundane and creative) and the fact that film as as medium relies on the passing of time, or the passing of frames through light at a set speed, to work. You can even get up and look at the 16mm film running through the projectors in many of the rooms. And, finally, the subjects of the films themselves often suggest the inevitability of degradation or give off a distinct autumnal vibe; with Twombly and Hockey both slowing figures in their 80s, and one film in the Still Life series covering the slow alteration of two apples in a schnapps bottle. 

Watching the films and reading the supporting text might also trigger you into contemplating how manipulating the physical nature of celluloid can allow for new realities  and effects to be created on screen: Dean's "His Picture in Little" (a tiny, intense projection of the sittings of three former Hamlet actors Dillane, Warner and Whishaw which emerges onto one of the NPGs wall spaces) splices together three different shoots from three different time periods, all done via masking of the film and not digital manipulation. "His Picture in Little" is one of the new works on display and perhaps the highlight, being an homage to the tradition of tiny portraiture painting that harks back to the Shakespearean period and with examples of original art pieces from the time mounted alongside the film. Typical of Dean, this is a lost art form reclaimed for her show; she seems eternally curious about things that are about to vanish.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

FILMBOX Community Cinema presents the gripping Humphrey Bogart murder mystery In a Lonely Place

FILMBOX Community Cinema: Langley Park Centre for the Performing Arts (LPCPA) created for Langley Park School for Boys, in Beckenham, Kent, BR3 3BP (UK).

Tickets and details here.

In a Lonely Place

Director: Nicholas Ray

PG | 1h 34min | Drama, Film-Noir, Mystery | 19 June 1950 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★★


The Smoke Screen is always on the lookout for a chance to catch a classic from the Hollywood golden era, and this month FILMBOX Community Cinema kindly obliged with a screening of Nicholas Ray's (well-known for helming Rebel Without a Cause) gripping and unsettling murder mystery, starring a never-better Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Bogart is well-known for his sparky pairings with Lauren Bacall, but putting him up against a co-star of the calibre of Grahame is hardly a second-tier move. Check out FILMBOX at their site here; they have two screenings a night now, with one of their auditoriums being a huge purpose built performance hall room which can seat well over 400. Prices are very affordable and their are detailed introductions before each film, and a bar on site. It is volunteer-run and the programming is diverse, tending towards classics and indie films that have had some box office success or critical acclaim (i.e you tend not to get Marvel superhero movies.) You can join up as a member, but non-members are welcome, tickets from £5-£8 depending on status.

Widely regarded as a classic thriller from director Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place stars screen icons Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame at their absolute best, in roles that require pushing at the edges of expectations of the kinds of roles worthy of a golden era star. Bogart is really working against his tough-but-good-hearted image here as a cynical, booze -addled Hollywood screenwriter called Dixon Steele, who seems to have left his talent and sobriety (as well as the ability to control his violent asshole temperament) back in the just-finished overseas global conflict. When Steele, after a day boozing and complaining with a bunch of other Hollywood leftovers in a local bar (one of the many ways this film is dripping with cynicism about the flicks; Ray has his own reasons for feeling this way), decides to invite a young admiring female fan back to his apartment on the dubious claim that she can help explain the plot of this novel he is struggling with, he sets himself up as the prime murder suspect when the girl winds up dead in a ditch the next morning.

We don't see her safely leave his apartment and make it to the nearby taxi stand as she said she would do, but Grahame's character's testimony -she is Steele's alluring and mysterious neighbour Laurel who lives in the opposite apartment- gets Steele clear of the cops for the time being. But the compelling questions remain: did Steele do it, and is Laurel safe once she starts becoming romantically entangled with Steele? And it is, of course, way more of a compelling question when it is an icon like Bogey who is the suspect. Bogart only gets more and more darkly fascinating as this film goes on, seemingly unable to stop flaunting the idea that he might have done it in to cops and friends, as if he has finally cottoned on to a plot worth milking after years of pissing his talent away. The key scene where, with a twisted glare on his face, he orders his close friend and his wife to re-enact the murder the way he visualises it took place, is worth the price of admission alone. Grahame has great chemistry with Bogart too, though I preferred her in the film's first act; where her in teasing flirtation with Steele - whilst she knows he is a suspect- raises all kinds of questions about whether she is a moth-to-flame danger seeker.

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Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

As 2001: A Space Odyssey warps back into cinemas, the Smoke Screen recalls speaking to the original Discovery astronauts

 GARY LOCKWOOD AND KEIR DULLEA IN  2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

GARY LOCKWOOD AND KEIR DULLEA IN 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

With 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick redefined the science-fiction film genre,  the limits of filmmaking itself, and cemented his legacy as one of the most revolutionary and influential film directors of all time. Originally released in 70mm Cinerama roadshow format on April 3 1968, the film's 50th anniversary is being marked by a new roadshow aiming to recreate the visual and audio experience audiences would have had in 1968. No digital tricks, no extra scenes. This is not a 'director's cut'. You can read more about the cutting of this new print here courtesy of Cannes (where it premiered recently) and Warner Bros. technical staff.

For the first time since the original release, this 70mm print was struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative. Supported by celluloid lover and acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, this is a true photochemical film recreation from an age-old process which will go on tour worldwide. This screening will have a 15 minute interval also, as per the good old days. Picturehouse cinemas in London currently have tickets for a May period.

To mark the occasion, the Smoke Screen went back into the archives to dig up an interview roundtable with the cast members who play as the two beleaguered astronauts who come up against both the devious computer HAL, and the mysterious alien Stargate that ultimately opens the path to the film's mindbending conclusion. This was conducted around time of the Autumn 2014 BFI Sci-Fi "Days of Fear and Wonder" season, which saw 2001 play in a headline slot in a new restored digital print. A very different print will play this time, of course, but the interview remains  a real trove of insights into the mercurial Kubrick's making of a true classic. The entire feature is printed below, and also can be viewed in full here.


You can't get away from Stanley Kubrick’s grandiose, mysterious and undeniably trippy 1968 space epic 2001: A Space OdysseyLike the imposing, sleek monoliths from the film, 2001 looms over all cinema genres, not just science fictionEven director Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi film Interstellar, released in the same month that the BFI and Warner Bros studio have released a new digital transfer of Kubrick’s movie, openly pays homage to its predecessor.

Eventually becoming a huge box office and critical hit following its release  2001 is now a permanent fixture in all the major “best of” charts. It remains still in the top ten of the Sight and Sound Magazine Greatest Films poll, and was recently voted No. 1 in a Time Out London poll for the best 100 Sci-Fi films. It is fair to say that 2001, with it’s largely dialogue-free narrative, avante- garde music and benchmark-setting special effects, has gone beyond being just a film that is widely regarded as a masterpiece; it is spoken of and written about as if it is a piece of art.

Though the most famous character in 2001 is undoubtedly supercomputer HAL 9000, the human presence in the film's second half is made up of astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole, two men on what must be the loneliest mission in history aboard the spaceship Discovery. The pair are bound for Jupiter, following the path of a mysterious alien transmission from the alien monolith found on the moon. Actors Keir Dullea (Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (Poole) were reunited this month in London to celebrate the 2K digital reissue of 2001 playing as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season, and kindly shared their memories with me of going on “The Ultimate Trip” (as studio MGM sneakily billed the film when they realised how certain 60s youthful audiences were enjoying the film).

The two are an interesting double act; Dullea’s precise, carefully-considered answers contrast with the curmudgeonly Lockwood’s more roundabout ways of telling stories. Both are sharp as a knife when it comes to recalling various behind-the-scenes memories, thought that did not prevent the pair putting our interview on hold on occasion to get stuck into a friendly row or two as to the order of certain scenes in the film. Both remain fierce in their praise of the director who gave them the job.

You can read fuller version of my interview over at Grolsch FIlm Works who originally commissioned the piece, but here are some highlights below:

 

LOCKWOOD AND DULLEA THEN AND NOW

On getting hired by Stanley Kubrick for 2001:

Both Dullea and Lockwood were already Kubrick fans when they got the call to join 2001, so for both it was no brainer to sign up for the space mission. Keir Dullea was actually in England at the time, shooting an Otto Premigner film. Wandering in to a Battersea Park funfair one day, he encountered a palm reader who warned him: ‘I see a rocket ship in your future.’ ” A week after that, Kubrick called. 

Lockwood already had secured a place in sci-fi history, having starred in the pilot of a little show called Star Trek (where he plays Gary Mitchell, ultimately the villain of the story, in a one-off role).  He'd already worked with Kubrick on Spartacus.  At the time he remembers he was: “getting a lot of jobs, doing rather well, enjoying it, chasing beautiful girls and driving Porsches: the routine.” Then his agent called with Kubrick’s offer. Lockwood jumped at the chance: “I was a giant fan of Kubrick, even though I was a cowboy. I knew his stuff. I thought he was a genius.” 

On working with the legendary director.

Neither Dullea or Lockwood will have any truck with the myths that Kubrick was a strange, obsessive loner who enjoyed pushing his actors. Instead they found him professional, courteous, and amazingly curious, seemingly about everything. Says Dullea: "I’d just finished working with Preminger, so let me tell you, it was like going from hell to heaven! [Kubrick] was so easygoing with us, he never raised his voice, ever. He put us at ease quickly and was never demanding in the way you might imagine he would be. He was so prepared, the most prepared director I had ever worked with, so I guess he could relax about everything else.”

Lockwood liked Kubrick’s directing style, the way he let professional actors get on with the job on set and when the cameras rolled: “I asked him once why I got the part, and he told me that he thought I could ‘do a lot without doing anything.’ Stanley never said anything, that’s what I liked about him."

For Lockwood: There is only one Stanley Kubrick. People who are really good at something have to have an IQ! They have to be intelligent! I meet students out of film school and they say things like: ‘I wanna make films like Stanley Kubrick’. You can’t tell after just five minutes with them; there’s just not the grey matter there! Kubrick was curious, and so very, very intelligent.”

Dullea remembers Kubrick as: “the most curious man I ever met. I remember the Pentax camera had just come out that year: he stopped shooting and took hours to find out all about it!”

On their characters:

There is little dialogue in 2001, even when the film moves out of the prehistoric era. Dullea noticed that Kubrick cut more and more dialogue away the more takes they did. To help the cast, Kubrick prepped them via fictional biographies: “Our characters had double doctorates in sciences; the concept was that by year 2001 NASA wouldn't be taking astronauts from the military necessarily: they'd be looking early on at young men from high school and college, narrowing it down in terms of choosing based on their psychological profile.  

Both actors have little stories about they shaped the direction of 2001 with their own input. Lockwood laughs as he recalls how Stanley Kubrick challenged him to come up with a better idea of how the astronauts would confront HAL once he started malfunctioning. After a trip to a deli on Golders Green courtesy of Kubrick's driver, Lockwood scribbled out a scenario where the astronauts would plot in the pod, where they felt HAL couldnt hear them. Only a few hours previously, Lockwood had feared Kubrick was going to fire him for complaining about how he felt the narrative had been constructed. For his part, Dullea suggested to Kubrick that he break a wine glass during the sequence where Bowman ages in huge jumps in the strange artificial hotel room, after his voyage through the star portal. 

 

 On finally seeing 2001 in the cinema in 1968:

Both were blown away by seeing the film on the big screen, Lockwood in particular as he was extremely stoned at the time. Corralled by a film journalist for an interview after the screening, Lockwood remembers the man commenting: “ Well Mr Lockwood, you still look like you’re out there in space!” Dullea was struck by the Dawn of Man sequence (with its famous jump cut from the bone in mid air to a satellite orbiting Earth); as it was a section of the film that neither of the actors had worked on and thus were seeing it for the first time. 

On talking to younger audiences about 2001:

Though Lockwood deplores modern audiences “with their lack of attention thanks to MTV-style fast cutting”, Dullea is upbeat about 2001 finding new audiences now. He recalls that on the autograph circuit he started noticing that: “more than 50% of fans now were not born when 2001 came out. That speaks to the trans-generational aspect of this film. The genius of this film, of Kubrick, has appealed to generations up to this moment.”

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Event Review: Science Fiction Theatre presents: 1973s Westworld

With HBOs highly-acclaimed new scifi show Westworld currently enjoying lashings of critical praise, whilst also consuming the tireless brains of hardcore fans determined to unearth the show's underlying mythology, the gurus behind the film club Science Fiction Theatre felt the time was right to revisit the original 1973 film that HBO mined for its new series. One of the most committed and welcoming film clubs the Smoke Screen has had the honour of patronising, Science Fiction Theatre is a monthly science fiction film club run by The Space Merchants, an online bookshop specialising in vintage science fiction. Their film events explore and celebrate classic science fiction film and television, and screenings are enhanced by custom-designed posters (which can be bought online and at events) as well as takeaway items like stylised tickets (such as the Westworld-themed ticket the Smoke Screen picked up at their Westworld screening last Monday), programme notes, and there is the odd raffle too.

In the movie version of Westworld, which was written and directed by none other than Jurassic Park's author Michael Crichton (note the "theme park gone bad" motif) businessman Blane (James Brolin) and lawyer Martin (Richard Benjamin) take a dream holiday to the newly opened technological paradise Westworld, a futuristic theme park offering its visitors all the thrills, but none of the dangers, of the old Wild West, which is recreated by supposedly harmless robots. However, when one of the computerized gunslingers (Yul Brynner) malfunctions, the two city slickers find themselves in a battle for their lives.

Fans keen to compare the movie to the television series will of course be unable to avoid the difference a few extra million dollars and an advanced CGI toolkit can make. HBO's series simply has more technical oomph, and a multi-season order with HBO's traditional hour-long episodes give the show's creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy far more scope than Crichton's film ever had to create a richly-detailed world of hosts and robots in a huge recreation of the old American west, whilst exploring the related themes and concerns more deeply. Yet, interestingly, HBO's first season has so far limited itself to exploring only one park - the titular Westworld - whereas Crichton's film features not only an old West setting, but the sybarite Roman World and Medieval Worlds too. Future HBO seasons might address this. And 1973s Westworld wasn't exactly primitive when it was released, it does in fact feature some of the earliest use of computer-aided visual effects to create several pixellated robot POV shots.

Whilst Crichton's film is a good deal of pulpy fun, ending in a quite memorable last act chase scene and squeezing in some commentary on the effect of unlimited power/ zero responsibility on humans on the side, HBO's series took a leaf out of the Battlestar Galactica remake's playbook and introduced the conceit of the robots having been designed to such an advanced level that they are developing their own self-awareness. Blade Runner levels of paranoia about who is human and 'replicant' are also in play, as HBO's robots are all but indistinguishable from humans, and some have been programmed to think they are human. With this twist, HBO's Westworld opens up whole new avenues to explore the moral/ethical minefield that the park has created. That being said, HBO's show, for all its fine dressings, lacks a character with the poise and edge of the movie's Yul Brynner, whose performance as the malfunctioning gunslinger allows just enough man into the machine to make you think this might be personal. In many ways he is the "first Terminator."

The poster for the Westworld event was designed by Daniel Huntley, and you can see it on facebook and twitter humans 

Check the Science Fiction Theatre website for more information on upcoming screenings, to buy prints, or to find out about their podcast and recommendations.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Irish Film Festival London 2016 review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

Director: Billy O'Brien

15 | 1h 44min | Thriller | 9 December 2016 (UK)

Playing Irish Film Festival 2016 on November 25.

RATING: ★★★★☆

With the Irish Film Festival in London now underway, the Smoke Screen is keen to recommend from the programme this left-field serial killer drama, directed by Irish director Billy O’Brien and adapted from Dan Wells’ cult novel. It is one of those films that slides around intriguingly (as opposed to awkwardly) between genres, whilst feeling distinct enough in its vision, coming apart slightly only at the end when it commits to a revelation that feels both a little superfluous and unearned. If you had to compare it to anything, shows like Six Feet Under and Dexter spring to mind.

Set in a wintry midwestern small town (given plenty of character thanks to the 16mm work of DP Robbie Ryan), the film follows the exploits, and takes the POV of, one 16-year-old John Cleaver, a kid who has some pretty serious issues. John is different from the other kids at school, and not just because he is introspective and awkward. John has actually been diagnosed as having the same psychological makeup as a psychopathic serial killer something that haunts his nervy mother (Laura Fraser, from Breaking Bad) who keeps him distracted by employing him in the funeral home’s mortuary, where his uncontainable fascination with death and corpses can be focused where it cant hurt the living. There are plenty of thriller films out there based around unstable protagonists, and many others that play upon society's fears of teen delinquents going to the dark side. But making the main character here a young man who actually knows he is basically a fit for the template of a killer - and is struggling to deal with it - gives the film an immediate, compelling edge. It also raises the question as to whether or not John himself is responsible for the string of brutal and unusual murders that start to rock the neighbourhood. 

John becomes obsessed with hunting for the killer, but is he doing this because he wants to embrace a kindred spirit, and to find a teacher? Is this hunt part of some extreme psychological defence mechanism his mind is resorting to, all to avoid the truth that he is actually the murderer?

Either way, the solution seems to involve his odd, elderly neighbour Crowley (Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd) who seems to always be there when the killings take place. As John, Max Records (the young kid from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are) is really convincing at portraying a kid who has spent years practicing wearing a mask of normality and pretending to make emotional connections, and the screenplay requires him to veer between being goofy and genuinely menacing, which he pulls off just fine. John’s abnormal perceptions of the world and his struggle to stay contained help justify the tonal variations of the movie itself: which at times can seem like a Wes Anderson film with its almost cheery depictions of mundane Midwestern life in this sleepy town, which are then interrupted by some genuinely unsettling scenes - with the eerie and intense score really helping here - when the killer strikes.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

1000 Londoners' NECROPOLIS shorts show how the capital gets its All Hallows on

As a born Londoner and film buff, the Smoke Screen makes it a priority to catch the short programmes produced by 1000 Londoners: a project produced by Chocolate Films and directors Rachael Wang and Mark Currie, which aims to create a collage portrait of the city via 1000 short films with each one following a different Londoner. 1000 different points of view, from all over the city and from various times of the year. It is an ambitious target to be sure, with the project still not complete yet.

Each week a new Londoner's story is broadcast on http://www.1000londoners.com , but 1000 Londoners also run movie nights around the capital, collecting together several shorts under one overall theme and often intercutting them with quirky archive footage gleaned from the London Screen Archives. This month's programme is titled (appropriately, given the dark nights are setting in) "Necropolis", and it collects a variety of Londoner's stories together which were all recorded on Halloween night. The programmers set themselves a challenge of spontaneity with this one, with a team of twelve filmmakers venturing out into the streets after dark to see how many stories they could gather.

The eleven films that are the result of that one night's work feel very true to the ethos of 1000 Londoners: in that you truly feel that before you on screen is a cross-section of the melting pot of people, feelings, dreams and conflicts that modern London is made of. There are immigrants, harmless eccentrics, the devout, the elderly, and the carefree young, all rubbing shoulders. One subject - "transformational intuitive coach" Sri - is one of the those true originals you hope the 1000 Londoner's team will dig up every time they head out; Sri being a spell caster who we see running a training session to a rapt crowd on Halloween in full zombie costume (it seems Halloween costumes and fake blood are no impediment to casting a spell). Paul, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia five times but now discovering the joys of roller skating in Halloween regalia with crowds of likeminded types, provides an inspirational tale of self-help and redemtpion. But more poignant is our introduction to Peter, an elderly Highgate resident who has lived in the area for nearly 40 years, and likes to visit the Highgate wood in his retirement, whilst wistfully recalling the days he was more active. Halloween doesn't mean as much to Peter as it used to; he is painfully aware that more years are behind him now than ahead. In a city that seems so fast moving, with masses of people always coming and going, Peter is also a reminder to us that some Londoners like to stick to their patch. You can only imagine the changes he has seen.

You can see more of 1000 Londoner's work on their website, and they will return after the New Year with more film nights.

1000 Londoners: Necropolis was held at the Lexi Cinema in North London.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Review: 2016's Korean Film Festival foregrounds women in Korean cinema with strong gala opener The Truth Beneath

2015, Directed by Lee Kyoung-mi , starring Son Ye-jin, Kim Joo-hyuk . 
103 mins

RATING: ★★★★

The Korean Film Festival runs 3-17 November in London and also continues around the UK beyond that. See the KFF website for more details.

This year's 2016 Korean Film Festival in London promised a special focus on the lives of women through the eyes of Korean female directors. Appropriately then, the festival proper opened with this political drama directed by a woman, in this case Lee Kyoung-mi - who made a strong impression with her acclaimed feature debut Crush and Blush - which was produced by Park Chan-wook of Oldboy fame. Eight years later, and she has returned with The Truth Beneath, which was co-written by Park, and this new work will almost certainly please fans of his expressionistic (some would say slightly mad) approach to filmmaking. Notably, the film also has a female protagonist who drives the story.

This moody, stylistically left-field and unpredictably plotted drama savages modern local Korean politics right from the get go, as aspiring politician Jong-chan (Kim Joo-hyuk) and his weary-of-politics wife Yeon-hong (Son Ye-jin) see their tightly-run election campaign stumble when their freewheeling but secretive daughter Min-jin (Ji-Hoon Shin) vanishes overnight. Jong-chan is a former news anchor who is now looking to become a politician, and has secured the nomination for the Korea Party in the area of Daeson whilst going up against the lawmaker Noh Jae-soon (Kim Eui-song). Right away, the disappearance exposes fractures in the family and the political scene, as Jong-chan decides to press on campaigning, deeply disappointing his wife and putting his poll lead in jeopardy. Yeon-hong's suspicions only grow when her probing into Min-Jin's absence unearths disturbing revelations.

For one thing, her daughter lied about where she was going and who she was meeting that night. Jong-chan's rival, Yeon-hong fears, would not be beneath destroying their campaign by abducting or harming their daughter. Min-Jin's closest friend at school, from a notably lower social class, seems to have been the last person to see her alive, but is vague about why she has her friend's blood on her plimsoles from that night. Then Yeon-hong breaks into her daughter's email account, only to find that her daughter was being emailed leaked exams by her teacher, giving her an edge that helped her boost her grades. But how does any of this add up?

The more Yeon-hong digs, the more she begins to fear a political motive was involved, but it might have had less to do with disrupting Jong-chan's campaign than protecting it instead. Intriguing though the final revelation is (in that it is a plausible scenario, but involves just enough circumstance to baffle and surprise you), it would be a stretch to say the clues to unlocking this mystery are scattered throughout the narrative in such a way that the final answer will provoke viewers to rethink everything they have seen. Instead, this is one of those films where the last ten minutes really explain everything in a blood-soaked, anguished howl; and this may be unsatisfying to some. It is tempting to see some echoes of the plot of Park's Oldboy here, in that both films feature labyrynthine plots that conceal the real mastermind behind more than a few red herrings or through simple denial of facts to the audience. Still, the film offers a fast pace and tells its story with some stylistic flair and eye-catching mise-en-scene: from the use of variable slo-mo in flashback sequences, a vivid colour pallette, and some gritty and well-executed moments of violence. In fact, there is something nicely erratic about the film; a slightly elevated melodramatic and surreal tone that doesn't stray too far from keeping the film realistic, but isn't exactly 'normal' either.  The soundtrack is appealingly eclectic too, in part informed by Min-Jin's musical tastes and her (hidden from her parents) sideline as an amateur vocalist and guitarist. Son Ye-jin's performance anchors it all, as the increasingly determined- maybe even deranged- mother on a mission.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

UK Jewish Film Festival 2016 review: The Small World of Sammy Lee

Director: Ken Hughes

X | 1h 47min | Drama | April 1963 (UK)

Playing during the UK Jewish Film Festival 2016  at JW3 on 15 NOV 6.30pm.

See here for bluray details - out from 14 November.

RATING: ★★★★☆

Playing as part of the UK Jewish FIlm Festival 2016, and now remastered for a new bluray release courtesy of StudioCanal and their Vintage Classics Line, Ken Hughes’s (Alfie) The Small World of Sammy Lee is a dark, funny and stylish romp through a seedy Soho from decades past; a side of London that has long since been smothered by gentrification and tourism. In this 1963 British-Jewish crime thriller, Anthony Newley is pitch-perfect as strip-club compere Sammy, the kind of guy who keeps his shady dealings small-time, but has nevertheless used up almost all of his nine lives by the time the film’s main plot kicks off. Having screwed up one card game too many, Sammy has to go on the run from the heavies, managing to convince the surprisingly affable enforcer who is sicked onto him (this is one of those films packed full of gentlemen thieves) that he can muster up £300 by the end of the day.

The narrative is built around the remaining half a day Sammy has to scare up the dough; racing against the clock to chase up every debt he is owed, lining up several black market deals that pay cash up front but only require a (inevitably late) check from him, whilst rifling through the piles of ‘back of the lorry’ merch he has stashed in his flat to see what he can offload. There’s plenty of appeal in watching this cheeky chancer scrabble from cafes to pool halls, trying to see if his gift of the gab can get him out of one last scrape, and the film works well as a time capsule of a period when Soho really did have edge. Lensed in brooding black and white by cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, the film also boasts an exceptional supporting cast that packs in Miriam Karlin, Wilfrid Brambell, Roy Kinnear and Warren Mitchell. Plus, the jazz score will nestle in your ear for hours after.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

UK Jewish Film Festival 2016 review: Weiner

As  'make up your mind' time arrives in the US, at the close of another seemingly unending and bitterly fought general election campaign, it seems appropriate that the UK's Jewish Film Festival chose today to screen Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's acclaimed political doc, Weiner. It also feels timely to repost the Smoke Screen's review of the film, from earlier in the year. Enjoy at your leisure, and (try to) shake off those election nerves.

The UK Jewish Film Festival  funs 5-20 November across London and the UK, see here for the full calendar.

Directors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg

15 | 1h 36min | Documentary | 8 July 2016 (UK release date)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Seven-term congressman and New York City failed mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner is probably not a household name to British audiences. But if you had been watching The Daily Show a few years back you would almost certainly would have come across several sketches showcasing the epic double downfall of this politician, a downfall which, given the unfortunate surname of the figure involved and the sexual nature of the transgressions, seemed to confirm his status as a walking punchline and political pariah. 

Filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s new documentary tracks the period where Weiner, some time after his humiliating resignation as a congressman for using Twitter to send pictures of his crotch to a female follower, mounts his New York City mayoral campaign in summer of 2013. He actually started ahead in the polls, and drew large crowds. New York, it seems, is a city where you can get a second chance. But Kriegman and Sternberg suddenly saw the trajectory of their film turn 180 degrees when Weiner was forced to admit that new “sexting” allegations had a basis in fact. The media descended and ripped apart his every move, with Weiner trying desperately to forge ahead and turn the conversation back to policy, to no avail. What a story these two filmmakers found themselves caught in the middle of! Contextualising Weiner’s rise and fall with a mixture of footage from his mayoral run and his former career, while intercutting this with examples of the absurd tone and level of media coverage Weiner was subjected to, the filmmakers do a pretty good job of transmitting the sheer nuttiness of that season in New York.

Weiner is undeniably gripping in that awful “car-crash TV” kind of way, as we are shown the increasing pressure and crippling 24-hour news coverage crushing Weiner in a vice, a situation not helped by his combative, swaggering nature. One "story arc" that emerges from all the footage the filmmakers present to us is that the same qualities that made Weiner such a star congressman - his bullishness and willingness to play to the camera - became crippling flaws when he had to fight on the defensive, and project humility instead of arrogance. In one wince-inducing scene we see Weiner, flailing as his poll ratings sink, getting right up in a bystander’s face inside a downtown bakery after he overhears a snide comment. You can imagine the horrified faces of his PR team as, in full view of a dozen network TV cameras, he rails against the man’s judgement. Footage of this rant was irresistible ammo for news review and comedy shows. Youtube helped make Weiner a star, and we are shown footage of him imperiously holding court in Congress, giving barnstorming soapbox performances which enamoured him to a generation of New Yorkers. But the same digital tools he used to fuel his rise made his fall just as rapid.

Despite all the political farce, there is a story of dark, personal tragedy here. Despite his many flaws, there is still something depressing about watching Weiner’s attempt to discuss policy be utterly ground down by the refusal of the media and audiences at hustings to talk about anything else other than the scandals. Further collateral damage in all this was Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, a skilled political staffer who had worked side by side with Hillary Clinton as an aide. Despite having earned a career which had made her well-known and respected across Washington DC, Huma does not come off in the documentary as comfortable being the centre of attention herself. Her reward for agreeing to be part of her husband’s mayoral run, a big step for her given she had previously not been front and centre in his career, is further humiliation as a hungry media descend to “analyse” what makes a woman like Abedin “stand by her man”.

As Weiner’s mayoral race is crushed on voting day, Abedin is told that the woman who was on the receiving end of her husband’s salacious texts is hanging around outside his office with a camera crew in tow, looking for an opportunity to create “a scene”. In the face of such a shameless fame-grab, Abedin and Weiner are forced into a tragicomic plan worthy of the show Veep, as they try to dive into a next-door McDonald’s in order to use the side door into the office. As you can imagine, this is not a documentary to watch if you are looking to re-affirm your faith in the American media and political scene.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Review: Abel Gance's epic Napoleon re-conquers screens this November

Director: Abel Gance

PG | 4h | Biography, Drama, History | 7 April 1927 (France)

Napoleon is at the BFI, select cinemas and VOD platforms (including BFIplayer) from 11 November. The film will be later released on BFI DVD/Bluray. See here for more details.

RATING: ★★★★★

Abel Gance’s depiction of the rise of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is the kind of undisputed cinema landmark that true film buffs really need to tick off on their checklists in order to maintain such aficionado status. This does require some serious commitment; originally released in 1927, Napoleon, in its fullest version available to the public today, requires a 330 minute-long time investment. It is worth every minute of that, however, being a true epic in every sense of the word; with the film's form and content tipping the scales well towards the grandiose from the first scene.

Gance’s film is in many ways an early example of what we today would call a blockbuster, or, to be more precise; a blockbuster biopic. Many of the familiar characteristics are on display here. Already blessed with a real-life figure whose was larger than life, Gance shamelessly frames Napoleon according to the ‘great man theory’ of history, placing him at the centre of various key events dotted throughout the tumultuous history of France; from the Revolution to the conquests of the European continent, with production values equal to these occasions. His Napoleon is a preternatural figure whose destiny as a superb military commander and inspirational leader of men is constantly foreshadowed in bold strokes. As a youth (played with unnerving intensity by Vladimir Roudenko) Napoleon is shown taking charge of his snowball fight team at his puritanical academy school, storming his foes defences in an early sign of his natural tactical and strategic prowess. Despite being bullied and mocked by his peers, the boy maintains a serious, solemn demeanour and is clearly a top student, softening only when in the presence of his pet eagle, a bird which he would take as his symbol when he turned conqueror. At one point, Gance shows us young Napoleon sitting on top of a cannon as his bird flies to his shoulder - subtle foreshadowing this isn’t, but this kind of grand, operatic mise en scene is of a piece with the entire movie.

As Gance’s epic progresses from Napoelon’s childhood (the older figure is played with moody intensity by the statuesque Albert Dieudonné) to show how he traversed many of the formative experiences that shaped his rapid advancement; including being inspired by the early rumblings of the Revolution to build a united Europe, overcoming various rivals, surviving the deadly Terror and political machinations, and wedding Josephine, you have to marvel at how Gance’s technical accomplishments allow the film to rise to the monumental subject matter, to literally get bigger and more dynamic as its subject grows in stature. The production values are lavish: huge sets and vast crowds come in a never ending parade, whilst the story ranges all over France and beyond. But Gance uses more complex techniques to give a sense of the wheels of history turning too. For example, he exploits exposure techniques to creature a surreal sequence where Napoleon imagines the delegates of the National Assembly that have driven the Revolution appearing out of thin air in the empty rows of benches around him, as he stands in the empty hall. Through this vision, Napoleon feels their calls on behalf of France to seek glory in conquest. At one point, to emphasise the chaos in the Assembly at another time, Gance literally swings the camera from a rope attached to the ceiling, letting it lurch back and forth over the crowds. 

Even more strikingly, Gance used multiple cameras shooting simultaneously to create a triptych effect for parts of the film: with the intention being that the three frames when projected side by side would allow an enhanced widescreen image. Essentially a form of ‘Cinemascope’ long before anyone in Hollywood had thought of it, this makes for highly impactful shots of armies manaoevering, or standing at ease whilst being addressed from above by Napoleon. Gance even at times mixes the frames up so each focuses on something different to its neighbouring frame, creating an in-film triptych montage. The visual approach also crams in extensive close-ups, POV shots, handheld sequences, tinting, fast cutting, and much more, as if Gance wanted to try everything.

The journey of Napoleon from its 1927 production and release to its re-issue this November is also an interesting story in its own right. Screened only a few times to the public since its original release (not hard to understand when you consider a live orchestra and triple projector setup are needed for the full experience) and the early victim of drastic cuts in length from its first edit, the film has been painstakingly restored after decades of work by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow and the BFI National Archive. Brownlow, who first saw and was captivated by the film in 9.5mm format as a schoolboy, has added to and re-edited it several times as more footage has been found, with this digital restoration being the final fruit of that toil. This new digital upgrade of Napoleon will allow audiences to see the film’s original tinting and toning, including colour combinations which could not be achieved in the existing 35mm print. Integration of sections sourced from a wide range of elements have also been improved by detailed digital image repair and alignment. The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up; you are seeing it at its very best.

Viewers who see this Brownlow version will not only be due a visual treat, as described above, but can savour the equally mammoth score composed and conducted by Carl Davis for Brownlow’s first Napoleon restoration in the 80s (newly recorded here in 7.1) - all five hours plus of it. And those who book to see the film’s special screening at the Royal Festival Hall on 6 November, will experience that same score - still the longest ever composed for a film - performed live by Davis himself conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Napoleon is at the BFI, select cinemas and VOD platforms (including BFIplayer) from 11 November. The film will be later released on BFI DVD/Bluray. See here for more details.

Napoleon plays at the Royal festival Hall on 6 November with a live score from Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.